Knowing the historical Jesus may be harder than it seems, but there are some things we can presuppose about him with reasonable certitude.
Knowing Jesus—do we? Do we care to? In our last post, we took an uncomfortable look at various congenial Jesuses, constructs invented or perpetuated by contemporary American Catholicism. These beloved fake Jesuses are identity thefts that keep us from knowing the real Jesus. Not only do they distort the Church’s official Christological understandings, but they are also quite alien to the prepaschal Jesus arrived at via culturally-informed historical investigation.
Knowing Anything for Certain?
Any social science or historical textbook will show that the following three presuppositions are accepted as truisms by their fields of inquiry.
One—all human beings are socialized and enculturated into a specific social system. This always happens specific to a given time and place. Consequently, Jesus being human cannot be exempt of this. We confess Jesus is truly human no? That this applies to him then should not disturb Christians.
Two—human beings share meanings with all members in their social group, meanings which are expressed by language, gesture, artifacts, and other cultural acts. This is because of their having been socialized and enculturated into a specific society. Thus, it is the historically-specific social system which gives the language, gesture, and artifacts their meanings. Consequently, Jesus being human cannot be exempt of this.
Three—whatever any human perceives, their perception is shaped and limited by the social presuppositions they necessarily bring to all events they perceive. Consequently, Jesus being human cannot be exempt of this. We all have baggage and so did the prepaschal Jesus. No baggage? Then, you aren’t human. I hope my baggage is redeemed, fellow Christians! That which was not assumed by the Incarnation is not redeemed!
Now with this Knowing, WHAT Do We Know?
This brings me to a curious series of questions that deal with mind-boggling realities. These are mind-boggling to me, anyway. Since these three presuppositions are certain, since Jesus was undoubtedly socialized and enculturated into first century Israel, an eastern Mediterranean agrarian society, how is it that exegetes and theologians regularly and routinely present him as a globalist? This is an impossibility. Why do many hold him and his first century followers (e.g., Paul) to be universalists?—surely, an absurdity! This is necessarily precluded!
We have spoken about Jesus traditions in the Gospels about the meaning of salt and saltiness here and here. Jesus comes from a society where dehydration was of serious concern. Therefore, salt was never used as a seasoning by ancient Israelites. Therefore, every sermon, homily, pious talk, and blurb you’ve encountered interpreting these traditions as exhortations to Christians being “tasty” are necessarily WRONG. And If Jesus’ society was oblivious to using salt to preserve food the range of meaning could not possibly include anything to do with preserving things. But U.S. Christians go on happily pooling ignorance repeating this ad nauseum.
Knowing Other ThingsHow could Jesus know anything about science or scientism or what we have learned through the Enlightenment? It is through post-Enlightenment scientific inquiry that we have gleaned the various traditions behind the Pentateuch and its redactions. If we cite Jesus anywhere in the Gospels holding Mosaic authorship of the Torah this has nothing to do with his divinity. It should be expected of any first century Israelite, even elites (e.g., Philo, Josephus).
It’s okay that the prepaschal Jesus made mistakes. Mistakes are not sin. Let’s stop worshiping a Platonic Super-Computer or the Supreme Intelligence from Marvel Comics, and start to respect the real Jesus.
Why is there a paucity of commentary about the tremendous differences between post-Industrial cities and the ancient polis? Recall our earlier post. Given the many Gospel mentions of Jerusalem and all other ancient “cities” throughout the New Testament, you would expect a lot of warning signs. “Watch out, American readers! The ancient city is nothing like our modern cities!” But almost nothing. Why is that? Consider the necessary confusion that results.
Knowing We Need to Know Much More!
Look at all the talk about the Holy Family and family in general when it comes to the Bible. Again, a dearth of explanatory comments about the tremendous differences between ancient Middle Eastern families and American nuclear families. Added to this is a plethora of kitsch artwork depicting Joseph and Jesus working in a carpentry shop of 19th century abundance.
What would Jesus know of contemporary nation-states? International law? The Renaissance? Think of our emphasis on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas and his dependence on Arab-European scholasticism—would Jesus know any of that? What would Jesus know of Justinian’s Code of Legal Interpretations?
Without Constantine’s Christendom or the talmudic Jewish religion, how would Jesus know about anything Christian or Jewish? As Context Scholar John Elliott writes, “Jesus was neither a ‘Jew’ nor a ‘Christian’. This is true at diverse levels and stages of discourse. For one thing, Jesus was neither a ‘Jew’ nor a ‘Christian’ in the sense that these terms are used today in ordinary discourse.” See Elliott’s tour de force on this subject here. And yet we go on calling Jesus a Jew and his immediate followers, Christians.
Knowing We Know Little
We all need a starting point. It is understandable to hold fast to a counterfeit Jesus if we have found healing and God’s Mystery in it. God meets us where we are at. We all get things wrong and in part. God works in the mess. Thank God.
But knowing this, we ought to grow beyond our comfort zones. A mature relationship is one open to change and growth. It isn’t fixed and frozen. This Advent, journey with Messy Inspirations here at Patheos as we challenge some ideas.